Food for Thought
When tiny fish are hugely sustainable
Unfortunately, a lot of wild seafood is wrought with environmental, ethical, economic and health implications. Many fish stocks are dwindling. And prices, not surprisingly, are climbing. Certain fishing methods are damaging underwater ecosystems and creating bycatch, whereby the wrong fish are caught and all too often killed. Big, carnivorous fish like tuna and swordfish are known to accumulate dangerous levels of heavy metals from the many fish, great and small, in their diets.
For most Americans, sardines are synonymous with "in a can," but those oily little fish can rise to a whole new level when prepared fresh.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the food chain, the lowly sardine poses a solution to each of these problems. And all we have to do is eat them.
“Sardine” is a general term for the young individuals of dozens of species of the Clupeid family of fish. Sardines from the North American East Coast are actually small herrings. The most prized sardines are the brisling species of the North and Baltic seas. Sardina pilchardus, from the Mediterranean, are named after the island Sardinia where the small fish were once particularly abundant.
For most Americans, sardines are synonymous with "in a can," but those oily little fish can rise to a whole new level when prepared fresh. Pacific sardine stocks are stronger than they've been in decades, and they appear to be on the increase. (Fossil evidence indicates that sardine populations ride a regular boom-and-bust cycle, though overfishing is thought to have expedited a midcentury Pacific fishery ebb.)
Sardines are one of the healthiest fish in the sea. They feed on photosynthetic plankton and don't accumulate heavy metals like carnivorous fish do. That diet also helps make sardines rich in omega-3 oils, protein, selenium and—if you eat the soft bones—calcium and fluoride.
Cooking with sardines can be tricky due to their fishy smell. A batch that I marinated and then pan-fried resulted in a fishy steam, which carried a very distinct aroma throughout the house. Days later, visitors were still asking if I'd just had fish for dinner.
The first step in cooking sardines is to clean them. If the scales are still present, gently slough them off with a knife. Be careful when gutting sardines, as they can be extremely delicate. As with most fish, the heads are edible. If you're willing to forgo that delicacy, you can simply pull the heads off and the guts will come out behind them. To make that job slightly easier with strong-boned sardines, cut the spine below the head. Or leave the spine attached and pull the head forward and down toward the tail: You’ll get the spine to come out, leaving behind two beautiful flat sardine filets held together by the skin. Rinse thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels.
If you want to marinate sardines, simple is better: I like lemon, olive oil and parsley. And I highly recommend grilling them outdoors afterwards, rather than cooking them inside the house. Grilled sardines are magnificent, and it keeps the fish funk out of your curtains.
In many Mediterranean countries, fresh sardines are commonly breaded and deep-fried—a technique that's both tasty and foolproof. Sardines cooked this way don't even stink up the house.
Just sprinkle your cleaned sardines with salt and pepper, then roll them in flour. Heat an inch or so of olive oil on low in a pan. When a drop of water draws a splattering response, add the fish. Three minutes per side should do it, although you can cook them longer if you want a more browned crisp (at the expense of moist flesh). Fried sardines are typically served with lemon wedges and little else, but the alternatives are many.
Sardine escabeche consists of fried sardines that are pickled in vinegar. The dish spread from Spain and Portugal to their colonies, resulting in some interesting permutations. Mexican escabeche refers to pickled jalapeños and carrots. In Brazilian peixe escabeche, fish is fried until crispy and then added to a coconut soup. In many places, escabeche simply means "marinade."
Along those lines, I've had good success mixing fried sardines with Thai green curry, and stuffing them between pieces of bread with pickles and other fixings for a po’boy. After gorging myself on my last batch of fried sardines, I still had a few left over. I stuck them in a jar of pickled eggs that I had going in the fridge. A few days later, the dill-infused vinaigrette had permeated the formerly crispy and still-oily fish for a phenomenal escabeche. Although the crisp was gone, the fried flavor remained, and it perfectly matched the vinegar brine from the egg jar.
The many possibilities presented by fresh sardines don't mean you should avoid them in cans. Go for the brisling varieties from cold, northern waters, and see if you notice their supposed superiority.
When going fresh, you can hardly get more local for seafood than California. And when you buy American sardines, you can be sure efforts were made to release the bycatch alive, according to Seafood Watch, which ranks sardines a "Best Choice" among seafood options. The Pacific sardine season runs January through August. Look for bright, sturdy, clean fish with clear eyes. Then take them home and rip their heads off.